Palo Alto high school grads offer advice | November 16, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 16, 2012

Palo Alto high school grads offer advice

Gunn, Paly graduates from 2011 feel prepared academically, less prepared socially

by Chris Kenrick

More than 90 percent of Palo Alto's high school graduates feel academically prepared for college but fewer than 70 percent of them feel "socially prepared," according to an alumni survey.

The online survey, taken this fall by graduates from the Class of 2011, offers feedback on specific academic and social areas in which alumni felt prepared or "underprepared."

Twenty-nine percent of 773 alumni responded to the 18-question survey, with 143 responses from Gunn High School graduates and 84 responses from Palo Alto High School graduates.

Palo Alto alumni reported similar levels of academic preparation — but lower levels of social preparation — than graduates of four other high-performing public high schools, including New Trier in Illinois, who took the same survey.

While only 68 percent of Palo Alto alums reported feeling "prepared or very prepared" socially, 86 percent of the alumni from the other schools felt socially prepared.

But when asked for what advice they'd give to high school students to help them best prepare for college, most alumni focused on the academic.

Student comments were all over the map, but nearly all indicated Paly and Gunn offered solid academic preparation even as they were stressful environments.

"If you did well at Paly or Gunn, you'll do fine at any college," reported one alumnus in the anonymous survey.

"Although it sucks during the college application time to have classmates that are national-level athletes, scholars or both, you come to realize how lucky you are to have been introduced to such talent, and the potential you have yourself.

"If you were 'average' at Paly or Gunn, you'll do quite well in most college environments, both academically and socially," the same student said.

More than one student referred to having felt "crushing" pressure to succeed in high school. But several advised that finding a good college fit is more important than attending a big-name school.

"When I first got to my university I was really scared because people kept saying, 'This is not like high school,'" a Paly graduate wrote. "And it's not like high school. If you went to Paly, it's probably easier. Which isn't to say you can let things slip, just don't panic about it too hard.

Another student wrote: "Unless you go to Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Princeton, etc., you will never again be around people as smart as those at Gunn. Enjoy it and take advantage of it."

Several warned that colleges — particularly at larger institutions like Berkeley — demand a much higher level of individual initiative.

"If you're going to attend a public university, get used to fending for yourself much more," one said.

Another recommended community college as a path to avoid the high cost of tuition at four-year colleges.

Several recommended taking a gap year.

"Try and know what you want to do before you enter college," one student wrote. "A gap year is a great idea. And do what you want. This is your life, not your parents'."

Another suggested that Palo Alto students are overprotected.

"There is an overuse of coddling jargon throughout the district (e.g. talking at great length about 'stress' and 'academic pressure' all the time) that makes it seem as though Palo Alto students are somehow delicate, gently bred, child aristocrats," a graduate wrote.

"Well, in college everyone is on the same level and in the same situation. Nobody cares about how 'stressed' you are — hard work is necessary to get where you want to be.

"Your perfect high-school transcript is irrelevant once you get to college, and however unique and special you thought you were in high school, you're nobody now. Stop whining and start from the ground up."

In the social area, many students advised reaching out to make a wide group of new friends.

"Everyone is starting all over," wrote one student.

"The popular kids are nobodies, and everyone is an equal. That's why almost everyone you will meet will be friendly! They are all looking for people to be friends with too. Say hi to strangers because chances are they may not know anyone yet either!"

Wrote another: "Quit drinking, partying and sleep at a regular hour. There are parties literally every hour of the week, but you'll easily drop out if you're not careful."

Several suggested the required high school Living Skills class could be improved to offer students better preparation.

"Make Living Skills not such a terrible class," the student wrote.

"It's far too sterile for anyone to learn anything. If Living Skills could turn into a legitimate discussion of life issues, it would start to become useful, but right now it's a joke and a waste of valuable time."

Many suggested that life in Palo Alto offers little preparation for the college social scene.

"If you have done well at Gunn you will be well-prepared academically," one student wrote.

"However, the 'social structure' may be quite different. Do not be surprised to see heavy, drinking, partying, drug use and promiscuity."

The advice of many graduates was summed up by one: "Study hard, but have a good time! Make friends and put yourself out there to try new things and new situations!"

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 14, 2012 at 2:24 pm

"Another student wrote: 'Unless you go to Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Princeton, etc., you will never again be around people as smart as those at Gunn. Enjoy it and take advantage of it.'"

It's sad how true this is. At Paly my year, every student who took BC Calc scored a 5 on the AP test. The average SAT in our class was probably over 2300. (At Stanford, the average SAT is around 2170.) Even at most of those "top" schools — possibly with the exception of MIT/Caltech — you'd be surprised to see find that the Paly/Gunn graduates are at the top of their classes.

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Posted by looks good to me
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm

93% of PAUSD students saying that they were prepared academically when they went off to college (the job of our high schools) is phenomenal. 68% percent said the same socially; that seems like a favorable vote too but even if seems low to some last I looked students’ social lives are mostly after school, not in school.

Look at all the favorable things students said about AP classes too:

“AP coursework is important” “The single class at Gunn that prepared me best for college was APUSH.“ “I think very fondly on my experiences at Gunn, especially in the AP classes I got to take“ “Take all the APs you can handle-they help a lot in first-year classes. Whatever struggles you put into AP classes in high school, your college classes will be that much easier!” “Take as many challenging classes as you possibly can because it will make college easier and you get to expand your limits.” “Classes like APUSH and AP English will help you with that transition” “Taking AP classes and the AP exams helps you get used to the formats in many tests, especially in essay-writing exams, so do that if possible.” “Take AP tests in science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics C). These will help you a lot in college.” “inform students the convenient, academically responsible and time saving elements of AP courses.”

One student pushed for more APs in the humanities.

Only one disparaged APs; they “will either bring down your grade or make you work harder for it” advising high school students to take the “easiest classes you can to get a perfect GPA.”

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 14, 2012 at 4:03 pm

While I'm glad students are well prepared academically - I'm really concerned about the following comments:

Paly is insane. The study culture is very messed up and most of the students are so highly pressurized that of course they're going to pop.

It isn't normal in most places to lose about a kid a semester to suicide.

But if you get through that powder keg, college will be okay.

panic about it too hard.

"You've been through the worst; now it has to get better. God I hope this thing is anonymous."

Like this comment
Posted by Paly graduate
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 14, 2012 at 4:37 pm

As a Paly graduate who is currently attending Stanford, I think academic experiences tend to be 100% what students make of them, i.e. very few people have identical experiences in high school / college. I didn't stress too much at Paly - I worked VERY hard, to be sure (and got good grades/SAT scores, etc.), but from the start I convinced myself that I was doing all that for myself, not to compare myself to the others around me and definitely not study to appease my parents. I think that was the key in keeping a solid head through my academic years. Even now at Stanford, it's astonishing to see how different people react to academic stress - I may have a lower GPA than those people who study and stress out 24/7, but I feel like I'm happier here. College has been a wonderful experience and I really think that anyone can have a great time at any college if they look hard enough to find where they will fit in (chances are, there are people who really want to meet you all over the world!). For current students - chin up!

That being said, I also think saying that people aren't smart at other colleges unless they're at top-tier schools isn't accurate at all. I have met plenty of people here who I feel do not deserve to be here (NOT based on smarts - based on motivation, wanting to face Stanford as a positive learning experience), and I know plenty of other students at other, not so prestigious schools who perform excellently in academics and go on to go to top tier med schools, law schools, business schools, get the best jobs, etc. There is absolutely no accurate way to correlate someone's success in life/academics and the college they go to.

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Posted by Ducatigirl
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 14, 2012 at 7:48 pm

A lot of these kids, my son included, have or had no social life while at Paly, due to all the homework. The purpose of a social life is to give you social skills that will serve you well in the future.

Personally, I often feel that the homework overload is a cop-out by the teachers who don't have enough instruction time in the school day, and so assign the work to the kids to do at home what should have been done at school.

Most college kids go to school far away from home, no supervision, live in dorms, and just aren't ready for all that it implies. They are in a strange state in which they do not have much responsibility, in terms of supporting themselves, but they still have to deal with real-life issues daily, such as drugs, alcohol, completing projects on time, and getting sufficient sleep in spite of it all.

No high school anywhere prepares them for that. The after-school life does, but most of our kids do not have one, other than after-school sports or clubs. Basically, it is the school,of hard knocks after that, which has a steep learning curve.

I would assume that parents are the best instructors of what to expect in college, in the non-academic sense. I did a lot of "confessing" to my son about my life in a college dorm, so he would have a clue.

Like this comment
Posted by A mother
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 15, 2012 at 9:13 am

So few of my son's college friends were prepared to do simple things like keep track of the balance in their checking accounts, do laundry, paying bills (and parking tickets) on time . . . we as parents need to do a better job of preparing our kids for college in these areas, but it sure would be nice if the schools could assist at some level.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 15, 2012 at 10:41 am

There are several comments concerning the relevancy of the mandatory Living Skills class. I have yet to speak to one student who learned anything new in this class or felt it was a good use of their time. A Living Skills class has merit but the skills taught must be pertinent for today's students. This class needs to be updated to include basic financial literacy (balancing a checkbook, fundamentals of borrowing and buying on credit, etc.) and other actual skills students need at college or in the workplace (not all students will go onto college).

Like this comment
Posted by Does Standing With A Checkbook On The Top Of Your Head Mean The Checkbook Is Balanced?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2012 at 1:02 pm

> balancing a checkbook,

We learned how to do that in our 7th Grade math class. Shouldn't this be something that parents should be responsible for, or at least have a couple of videos on the PAUSD web-site to deal with this sort of thing?

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm

A few years a ago a Paly teacher (who no longer teaches Living Skills) taught the kids about doing taxes, changing a tire, etc. They spend a lot of time on sex ed in Living Skills, not that we don't want our children to be safe, but we don't exactly have a big teen pregnancy problem in Palo Alto. We do have mostly sheltered kids who don't have much spare time for chores and jobs because they are busy building their "college resumes".

It would be nice if Living Skills actually taught skills for life after Paly and Gunn!

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Posted by Paly Alum and Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 15, 2012 at 11:03 pm

What an interesting article. It would be nice if they could publish feedback from PAUSD alums every year to help the current PAUSD students and the School Board.

They should just take 2-3 weeks out of P.E. class to teach Living Skills, and as others have noted, they should improve it and teach things like: how to write a check, how to deposit a check, how to write a thank you note, basic etiquette, social skills, office politics, interviewing for a job, resumes, along with the sex ed and anti-drug information. Our kids don't have a lot of time and to require them to take this class for graduation takes time from other resume-building or academic activities.

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Posted by JvG
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 22, 2012 at 8:41 am

This isn't a new thing. I graduated from Paly in 1983 and went through Cornell Engineering in 3 years. It was easy because I ddn't have to do things I was not as good at like Spanish and English except for two clases my first year. From a social perspective, I stayed an additional year to get my MENG EE for social reasons. I wanted to play another year in the Cornell Univeristy Big Red Marching Band and graduate with the frahman classmates I came in with. Fortunately, when I returned home, HP payed more for people who worked summers there and had a Master degree so it worked out professionally as well. I think I'm a much better engineer and person due to all the poetry, prose, art, music, history and foreign language I encouraged myself to do my best at at Paly.

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Posted by JvG Paly alum and parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 22, 2012 at 8:45 am

Who under 40 balances a checkbook? That is for Mint to do automatically!

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Posted by Lou
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm

how sad that only 70% feel socialy prepared - get off your phone, ipod, computer and put the boos away for a while and get out and interact with real people!!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.